The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

the age of innocence

The Age of Innocence: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”

It’s 1870s New York, the Gilded Age of America, where substantial economic growth has bred a culture of wealth, class and entitlement.  There are certain ways you behave and certain ways you don’t.  The approval of the masses govern your actions and if you fall out of step, the resulting repercussions could be fatal to your social standing.  However as opulent as the “gild” may appear, gilding is often used to mask flaws, and Wharton, in this Pulitzer Prize novel, examines the cracks and blemishes of New York society underneath the glamour.

The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence (1785 or 1788) Joshua Reynolds source Wikipedia

Newland Archer is a young man who is firmly entrenched in the Gilded Age, the dictums of New York society inscribed in his soul with the expectations of the generation preceding his firmly entrenched in his behaviour.  Then enters Madame Olenska. Ellen Olenska is the cousin of his betrothed, May Welland.  While May is simple and uncomplicated, sort of a clear mirror of the society in which they move, Ellen is foreign and complex and holds an attraction for Newland that draws him outside of his societal shell, allowing him a new perspective on life. Suddenly the world he saw as sensible and practical now receives a critical appraisal from him as it appears small-minded, predictable and stifling.  As his attraction for Ellen grows, so does his dissatisfaction.  There is a possible turning point, but the break never materializes as Newland and May wed, beginning their married life.  Yet Ellen appears in their lives yet again and the uncomfortable unknown is always whispering around us: will Archer satisfy his longing and run away with Ellen or will old society New York curb his emotions and steer him on a more dutiful course?

The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence 1920 First Edition dust cover ~ source Wikipedia

Old New York society rules resonate throughout the book, but the reader can also feel a rumbling under the surface, and especially with the new generation one senses new perceptions and new ideas preparing to break through.  Yet while the old rules can at times appear uncompromising and inflexible, the title of the book perhaps gives a more varied perspective.  May Welland, a product of her times, in her simplicity and predictability exemplifies a lack of complication and an ease of life that is born of her beliefs in the era in which she lives, but throughout the book in the greater societal structure these behaviours seem to be slowly disappearing.  In her autobiography, Wharton claimed writing the book allowed her “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

And with her characteristic perception, Wharton demonstrated keen insight with regard to both New York society and human nature.  Newland represented a man wanting to follow his desires yet trapped in a society where he was expected to comply with its rules and behaviour.  While he did have a choice, the choice was limited and a decision to follow his feelings would have come with an enormous cost.  However, with Newland’s behaviour, Wharton also established the capriciousness of human nature, the inconstancy of sentiment and the uncertainty of our own wants.  Even our strongest feelings can be altered and changed.  If one acts on feeling alone, one is apt to be deceived and it’s only a strict moral code that can work to ensure stability, integrity and thus, happiness.

The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton Chess Players

The Chess Players Thomas Eakins ~ source Wikipedia

This novel was so complex with class structure, emotional tension, possible tragedy and all its other various social implications that writing a comprehensive and compact review is fraught with pitfalls.  I’m still thinking about this book, wondering at Newlands behaviour and how Wharton meant the reader to perceive him, pondering the depth of May’s character or lack of it, musing over the behaviour and feelings of Madam Olenska, and the rather surprising ending of the whole.  The House of Mirth is still my favourite Wharton novel, but The Age of Innocence with its epic scope certainly is a close second.  Wharton is truly an incomparable writer!


40 thoughts on “The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. I’m really intrigued by this one, now hearing good things about it from you and IIRC from Ruth. I found it at the thrift store recently, so it’s just sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. 🙂

    Also, “The Chess Players” – what a neat painting!

    • It’s definitely worth a good in-depth read! May, in the book, was a chess player herself. You’ll see what I mean when you read it!

  2. Fine review. I too prefer THOM. I fear that Wharton will be pushed out of the canon by current know it alls who prefer new and different to old, white, and dead. Hmmm.

  3. I really enjoyed this when I read it back in ’15 but considering how empty Wharton was, and how she shows that emptiness in her books, I decided to not read any more by her. I’m too easily led to despair with books like this.

    • How was she empty? She appears to have been a very busy and engaged person. She does have unusual insight into human emotions and behaviour though which is not exactly uplifting. Have you read The House of Mirth? On the surface it appears depressing but Wharton lifts Lily above it all to almost a spiritual plane. So in that way, there’s something victorious about it.

      • My take from Age was that Wharton was Godless, hence the empty. I figured she wasn’t just describing what she saw, but describing what she subscribed to. It was not something I wanted to investigate further. So no, I have not read House of Mirth.

        And I’m extremely suspicious of spiritualism that isn’t rooted directly in Christianity. That attempt has led to the proliferation of all the crazy new age “coexist” jackass bumper stickers I now have to endure. 😉

        • Do you think she subscribed to the society rules or Newland’s stepping outside them in being attracted to something that was (virtually) unattainable?

          I believe Wharton firmly espouses morals which is a good thing. As for whether they’re rooted in Christianity in her case, it’s unclear. There appears to be talk of her converting to Catholicism at the close of her life but that theory seems tenuous. She was no stranger to church, that was clear and had a number of Catholic friends.

          I would recommend The House of Mirth. God can work through people but he can also work in spite of people and I almost felt that in that book.

          • Just based on Innocence, I’d say she found Society Rules to be pointless but had nothing else beyond Self to replace them.

            By the by, this has been a great back and forth. I love when comments turn into these kind of things 😀
            Especially on someone else’s blog!

          • I saw it differently. To me, she emphasized the weakness of Newland’s character which reflected in his actions. There is little to admire about him and therefore I don’t think she was espousing that we should be ruled by our feelings and anything that is bound by rules is bad. On the contrary, I think she showed how the morals of that society held together the whole and sometimes we shouldn’t get what we want for the benefit of the whole. From the title and her words I quoted, I felt she regretted the disintegration of those morals which undermined societal stability. However, Wharton was astute enough to see the weaknesses of that era as well, so by portraying reality so discerningly sometimes her points/opinions seem slightly unclear and she makes us dig a little deeper for meaning.

            And yes, these conversations are great, aren’t they? I’m always looking to appreciate a book as much as I can and having others to bounce ideas off of, is a huge help. So thanks for your thoughts!

        • I don’t see my previous conversation so I apologize if I am repeating myself.

          I agree with Bookstooge that Wharton held traditional roles for women in contempt and could not seem to imagine happily married couples. Women are presented as in bondage to marriage and family. Only marrying for money etc…It is empty.

          However, I do like her writing because it is a superb and insightful style. Whether it is objective or not, I do not know. Surely somebody of her set was happy.

          • Sorry! I’m trying to get my comments off moderation but whether the box is ticked or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. And I’m told it doesn’t even give an “approved after moderation” notice which is really frustrating. So don’t worry, your comments will go through, I just have to approve them.

          • It always takes a certain amount of time for them to show up. I can’t remember if Cleo has comment mod on or not. I always check back in 3 or 4 hrs myself.

          • I don’t have comment mod on and it’s moderating them anyway. The off function worked for awhile and then without me touching it, my site simply changed its mind. I’ve almost given up trying to figure it out.

          • It is random things like this happening that have kept me away from going dotcom myself. I don’t even know anyone at church who could diagnose this kind of thing, so I’d be up a creek without a paddle too.
            And since comments are the focus for me, well….

    • I’m going to crash this conversation and say that I agree with Bookstooge; although I love Wharton’s literature because she is a superb and insightful writer.

      However, she did scorn Christianity and traditional roles for women and she does have a tendency to show women unhappy in those roles. A married woman with children always seems to be in bondage. And her characters are godless and empty. She cannot seem to fathom a happy marriage.

      Nevertheless, if I only read books by Christian writers, I would lose a lot of rich literary experiences. Nevertheless, I appreciate how Bookstooge would not want to read works that depresses him/her. I feel the same way about Virginia Woolf. I’m not surprised she saw life as futile.

      This is a great conversation. Sorry, I had to add my own two cents.

      • No problem, lol! Please add your two cents whenever you feel like it! 🙂

        How did you come to the understanding that Wharton scorned Christianity and traditional roles for women? In this book, while May has some challenges, she seems the most placid, balanced, “happy” person in the book. For May’s part, her marriage seemed happy or at least, fulfilling for her. And she is in a traditional role. Many of the women in the book seemed to have “happy” marriages, which is why they (both husbands and wives) band together to help May save hers.

        I don’t believe Wharton chose a traditional role for herself, but times were changing and there was much stepping out and testing the waters as this book exemplifies. Wharton appears to recognize traditions that were irretrievably lost and grieved for them.

        Where Wharton seems uncomfortable for many readers is that she portrays reality. Husbands cheat on their wives, young women are forced into roles that are exploitative, people act in many ways that are damaging to themselves and others. I don’t think Wharton was necessarily prescribing that the situations were what she would support or not support, only that that was the way they were. She forces the reader to face reality and certainly that can make people uncomfortable.

        Personally, I feel the same way you do about Virginia Woolf but I have a feeling that Wharton was different. Among other things, she donated a great amount of her time and effort to help people during the war, which, given her status, she could have avoided. I admire that. She seems to have had an unconventional life but I’m not sure if that makes her un-Christian or scornful of traditional roles. I’m very careful when I label people.

        It’s not necessarily that I disagree completely with either of you. If you want a feel-good book, certainly don’t read Wharton. If you want to read about real life from someone who is fine-tuned to unearth all the variables (both positive and negative) of society and human nature then Wharton is a good, though uncomfortable read.

        Thanks for the conversation, Sharon! I appreciate your comments!

        • Hi Cleo. Admittedly I have not read Age of Innocence but plan to. I do like reading her. My impression was from Ethan Frome and her Ghost Stories. It’s possible I jumped to conclusions. I’ll let you know after I’ve read A of E. 🙂

          • I’d try reading A of I and The House of Mirth (though not in succession if you want to stay happy, lol!) I felt The House of Mirth had a spiritual component to it but perhaps I was just grasping. I loved that novel! In any case, Ethan Frome is NOT a good read to judge her by. I actually didn’t really like that book. I felt her personal baggage intruded too much into the story and kind of ruined it. The two former novels have much more perspective and scope to them. And please, let me know what you think after you read them. I’ve just downloaded her autobiography but with all the other books I have on the go, I can’t imagine when I’ll get to it. 😉

  4. I loved this novel and I agree with all your observations! I think Wharton was at her finest when she wrote this and I cannot get over how brilliant she was! I did not really enjoy House of Mirth but I was very young and a very different person then, so me thinks, me will revisit it again! Thank You for an excellent and insightful review!

  5. elegant and informative post… don’t know much about EW, but this sounds quite appealing… another library book sale is next week; i’ll for some of her work… tx…

    • I think you’d like this book of hers and The House of Mirth. Ethan Frome and Summer I’ve also read but I wasn’t nearly as impressed. Please let us know what treasures you discover at the sale! 🙂

  6. Amazing review! Age of Innocence is the first Edith Wharton story I ever read and I still love it. Although, like you, House of Mirth is my favorite. 😀

    • Thanks so much, Lark! Ah, another The House of Mirth fan! Perhaps I need to do a read-along of it, maybe in the second half of the year …??? 🙂

  7. Oh how I devoured Age of Innocence! It so happened that I was dabbling with writing a novel set in this time period, only in Boston instead of NYC. (No, I never finished it.) However, the novel will never leave me, and the film was divine, in my opinion, because of the opulent sets and the acting by Daniel Day-Lewis and ??? Do you know I can’t recall exactly which actress played the female lead? I feel rather stupid for that. But a great novel.

    • How exciting that you were writing a novel at the time. Do you ever plan to get back to it to try to finish it? That would be interesting!

      I loved the film as well! It was amazingly well-done. Winona Ryder was May and Michelle Pfeiffer was Ellen, if I remember correctly and they each played their parts beautifully. I’ll have to watch it again soon!

  8. Once your reputation becomes tainted…
    …it’s what they call, the rise and fall.
    “My honor is my life; both grow in one
    Take honor from me; my life is done (Act 1,1) Richard II

  9. I’m almost done — I’ll finish this weekend. You are right…this is really complex; more than I remember it. For awhile I was beginning to think of Wharton as a female Hardy, though not as emotionally torturous. There is a lot to think about here and figure out.

    • I’d love to discuss it with you. Perhaps here or even in one of the Goodreads groups. We could set up a buddy read or something.

      • Sure, I’d like that. I plan to finish it tonight. I watched a few discussions on Youtube about NY society in 1870 and some reasons why Wharton wrote AofI that will be helpful in dissecting the complexities of what seems like a simple plot. I look forward to getting to the end.

  10. I’ve yet to read Wharton (The House of Mirth is on the list for this year, I hope), but I’m intrigued by the idea that in The Age of Innocence she was interested in looking back on an America that had “disappeared” – that seems to be a common sentiment, over and over through the decades.

    • Oh my, you are in for a treat with The House of Mirth! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

      Yes, we all long for what’s disappeared. But I always think when it’s our time to die, having to give up what has been meaningful throughout the years makes it easier to go. What a positive/negative thought, but very much like The House of Mirth!

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